Next installment in a series of positional analysis for the 2003 New England Patriots. Today: secondary.
"Ain't no I in team…ain't no we, either!" - Leon the wide receiver from a prominent beer commercial
The only thing Ty Law and Leon have in common is their love for fat wallets.
Law is an elite cornerback. Law is a shutdown corner. Law had three picks in the second biggest game of the year. Law has been to Honolulu several times, usually to play some mockery of a pro football game in February.
But oh, that fat wallet.
I want to finish my career in New England, but show me the money. I love winning Super Bowls, but I need to take care of my family. It's a business, and Bill Belichick is the best coach in the NFL, but I'm the best cornerback in the league and I need to be paid as such to keep me happy.
Sigh. Nice knowing you, Ty. Let's hope that your future fellow Detroit Lions can dance as well as you can.
Sarcasm and fantasy aside, the secondary situation for the 2004 Patriots turned a corner on Thursday, maybe. There is always the chance that Law will play for the Patriots at his current cap figure ($10.2 million, according to PatsFans.com's capologist, Miguel Benzan). But for the money Law is asking - make that demanding - the chances of Law playing in Foxborough beyond 2004 are as remote as the Antarctic wilderness.
Your knee-jerk reaction is perhaps something along the line of "pay him what he wants", and you perhaps base that only on one measly game. It's a good chance that Law does, too. Three picks of Peyton Manning in the AFC title game probably prompted Carl Poston (Law's agent) to stand outside the Patriot locker room, look at Belichick and make a "cha-ching" gesture with his fingers like Jerry Maguire did to the Cardinal GM (played by Eagle Glenn Frey) after Rod Tidwell's big game.
Is Law worth big bucks? Yes, just not what he's asking. He wants above Champ Bailey money, and he may wait until Charles Woodson scores his payday before making his final decision on his worth. He has determined that he is the best shutdown corner in the league, and is convinced that if the Patriots don't pay him what he wants, someone else will.
Yes, Law is one of the top shutdowns in the league. Just look at Tyrone Poole's stats. Poole benefited from teams not wanting to throw at Law and had a good, albeit at times uneven season. What Law and Poston may not bring up in negotiations is that Law did not lead the team in picks, but rather was tied with Poole (six picks each). Law could be lopped into the Lawyer Milloy category (questionable stats) because of the interception stats. The fact that Law is also 30 years old makes the Patriots even less willing to lock up Law for the money he wants and the length he desires.
If this matters at all, neither Law nor Poole had a particularly good Super Bowl. Belichick put Poole on Steve Smith and Law on Muhsin Muhammad, when everyone assumed that it would be the opposite. Smith burned Poole several times, once for a 39-yard touchdown pass. Law was more of a victim of questionable coverage schemes, as Muhammad's 85-yard touchdown pass was done with Law passing him off in zone coverage to rookie Eugene Wilson, who was late in getting over and pulled a groin muscle in trying to catch up. The fact that the Patriots gave up 29 points and three scoring plays of 30 yards or more reflects a bit on the play of the cornerbacks (though one of the long plays was a run by DeShawn Foster).
If Law leaves, the Patriots may consider putting Wilson back at his natural corner position. This does not minimize the good work Wilson did as free safety, a position he assumed after Milloy was released. Drafted in the second round with a rep being something like "the next Ty Law", Wilson proved to be a good centerfielder with a knack for the good stick now and then (ask Brandon Stokely). Wilson's biggest weakness is that he sometimes looks bad when isolated in deep one-on-one coverage. Another weakness is that during the postseason, receivers were finding cracks in 20-yard sideline patterns, and Wilson was never there to provide help for the cornerbacks.
Wilson and Poole would make a nice cornerback tandem if Law must go, but it would be a slight downgrade for the moment. It also would force the Patriots to address the free safety position either in the draft or the free agent market. The Patriots learned late in the season that the backup safeties (Chris Akins, Shawn Maier) are of greater value on special teams and are extreme liabilities in pass coverage.
Asante Samuel also figures into this equation. If he improves on his generally impressive rookie season, it could be a Samuel-Poole cornerback tandem with Wilson remaining in the free safety position. Samuel seems like he is still two years away from being an exceptional cornerback, in that he showed good instincts and some good technique, but did not have the impact of the starters.
Wonder how Rodney Harrison will handle the locker room if Law goes?
Harrison may have personally saved the season with his handling of the Milloy release. He helped galvanize the locker room and established his presence as the new strong safety of the team. He befriended Richard Seymour ("Lawyer Milloy doesn't speak for me!"), and the two of them were the driving force behind the rebirth of the team in Philadelphia. Then he went out there and beat the tar out of anyone and anything that came his way, and turned into an upgrade over Milloy.
How really good was Harrison? Many people think that he was the team MVP for 2003. All of Patriot Nation was outraged at his exclusion from the Pro Bowl. He did make the All-Pro team. He surpassed Willie McGinest as the teariest Patriot following a Super Bowl win, his first title in a ten-year career spent mostly on lousy Charger squads.
The future of the Patriot secondary pretty much hinges upon how the Law situation plays out. Unfortunately, Law may become someone who has had his share of titles and just wants to play the rest of his career for his long term financial happiness. He may feel the same way Ted Washington and Damien Woody do. Guys who want to re-do deals to hang around and bring in more talent are title-hungry. Guys who want the big payday are only about themselves. Law is unfortunately showing which side of that fence he is on.
If Law leaves, it will be exhibit number 482 on why the Patriots will continue to be a winning organization. The Patriots have the draft picks to replace Law if they have to, and cap savings will ring out (nearly $8 million) if they cut him after June 1st. The $8 million saved at that time won't get Washington or Woody signed, but it could bring in quality free agents for other positions. The bottom line is that Patriot players learn that winning comes before getting rich, and that the winning part far outweighs the loss of big bucks for players who are well compensated anyway.
Very few teams can carry this philosophy off. Belichick and Scott Pioli have more football smarts than any similar tandem in the NFL. Belichick had Plan B already in place, ready and waiting to drop the ball on Milloy, and the Patriots came out better without Milloy than with. Milloy languished on a lousy Bills team, albeit $5 million richer. It can be assumed that Law awaits a similar fate unless he changes his tune sometime soon.
Imagine that. Law goes back to Michigan as a Lion, richer than all get out, never to win another Vince again. If that's what he wants, then thank him for all the good he did here and wish him well.
Or, he can abide by the Law of the land. Be a little less rich, and prepare those other eight fingers for more rings.
Next installment: special teams.
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